Dodging Bombs and Tsunamis

The guesthouse where we stayed in Afghanistan last fall was attacked on Thursday by Taliban, who killed 16 people, including Indian doctors and other foreigners working on humanitarian projects.

The insurgents set off a car bomb, then a suicide bomber detonated himself and the insurgents stormed the Park Residence where I’d stayed with 8 members of a women’s peace delegation organized by Code Pink. (Click here for report on that trip) I was on a plane to Hawaii for a writing retreat when this happened, and on hearing the news I went into shock.

There but for fortune…

Faces flashed through my mind: the stooped Afghan lady who cleaned my room, the porter, the desk clerks and the foreigners we met in the dinning room. The guesthouse was modest and shabby by Western standards, but our guide had chosen it because he thought it was “safe,” unlike the fancier hotels where journalists and diplomats stay.

I felt, with renewed force, the anguish that Afghans live with every day, and found it difficult to enjoy the 80 degree sunshine and luxuriant waves, sand and tropical flowers. Why had it been their time and not mine? Why would this war never cease, and even if it did, wouldn’t others arise in its place? Where is peace, and what can we do to hasten it when few good deeds go unpunished?

The questions roiled in me the following day and I slept fitfully that night. At 5:30 a.m., I heard my cell phone go off. Who the hell could be calling? Someone from the mainland who didn’t realize how early it is in Hawaii?

It was my niece, Summer, in Honolulu. “There’s a tsunami coming,” she said.


She explained there’d been an earthquake in Chile and a tsunami was expected to hit the Hawaiian islands at 11.

What! Half asleep, I couldn’t make sense of this. Suicide bombs, tsunamis…

She told me to pack my things and come to my sister’s house that was on high ground in the middle of the island. “Come fast,” she said. “The warning sirens will go off at six and then there’ll be gridlock on the roads.”

I saw images of the Tsunami that leveled towns and killed masses in Thailand and India in 2004.

But I hesitated. I was staying on the 18th floor in a condo overlooking the beach, and I’d been told that I’d be safe on that high floor. I had a unique chance to watch this force of nature first hand.

But I was alone and if I stayed, I might not be able to leave for days. Better to make a run for my sister’s.

I jumped into gear and sped through the room, shoveling up my things and dumping them pell mell into a suitcase. I also grabbed my portable piano — we could make music while Rome burned.

I pulled out of the building just as the sirens started wailing and people on the streets began running in all directions. I drove to my sister’s in ten minutes flat — faster than anyone had done before. I joined my niece, her husband, baby, dog and cockatoo in the living room, and heard that four other friends and family members were on their way, prepared to stay for several days. But there was almost no food in the house!

My brother-in-law, Gary, had gone to fill his car with gas, but the station was crammed with cars “trying to enter from all directions,” he wrote later in an email to friends. After waiting for an hour to fill the tank, he drove to the nearest supermarket, which was under siege. Cars were parked three deep in the lot, there were no shopping carts and the lines to check out ran from the cashiers’ stands clear down the grocery aisles.

The first things to disappear from the store were water, ice, batteries, and, this being Hawaii, spam. Cardboard signs said “only 2 cans per customer.” The TV and radio announcers had been telling everyone to have enough food and water on hand for 5-7 days! Power would probably go out, so people should get non-perishable goods. That means spam, bruddah!

Summer said that when she and her husband had roared away from their home near the ocean in a local Hawaiian neighborhood, people were shooting off fireworks! Many locals later set up tents in a park near my sister’s home, where there were swings for the kids and a basketball court for the dudes. “Tsunami party!”

Gary finally made it home with a sack of potatoes, canned goods, bread and pasta, since he’d spent much of his time waiting in the pasta aisle. “It’s funny what people think they need,” he said, unpacking his stash. He himself had bought a jar of special pickles which he’d been searching for for weeks. “The smaller people tended to get smaller things, like mini muffins and crackers,” he said. He’s a large guy and his prize purchase was a large container of fresh-baked sweet rolls and Danish pastries, which another shopper had ditched just before checking out. Gary opened them in his kitchen and in minutes they were gone.

We settled down in front of the large screen TV to wait for the wall of water — 12 feet high in some places, the announcer said. It was supposed to hit Hilo harbor first, just after 11, then “wrap itself around all the islands.” No coast would be spared.

This is NOT a surfable wave,” the announcer kept warning. But we heard later that two crazies had gone out in the ocean by Waikiki.

The TV camera was fixed on Hilo harbor, which was now deserted. The image on the screen never changed. It was like watching an Andy Warhol movie where nothing happens and no one moves. Eleven a.m. came and went, then 11:30. Where in hell was the giant wave?

We saw some strong currents flow into the harbor and out again, in and out, for several cycles. This was “unusual behavior” for the ocean, we were told. But it was no tsunami.

We were relieved, of course — the tsunami might have destroyed Summer’s home and many others — but slightly disappointed, and emotionally exhausted.

What can we learn from all this? It was certainly better to be prepared for a tidal wave that fizzled than to be struck unawares as the Thai were in 2004, and the Indian doctors were last week. I look forward to your comments.



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27 thoughts on “Dodging Bombs and Tsunamis

  1. Kathy

    Hey, weather is not an exact science. Just be grateful. And do whatever you can to help.

  2. rick the celestial cowboy

    dear dear sara,

    about a week ago, before reading your latest account on afghanastan and the tragedy involving the suicide bomber, i watched mel gibson's incredible film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY.

    the movie touched me deeply because it reminded me that some people don't think the way americans do. i know when i lived in the caribbean and kept looking out my window to see black faces in military uniforms and stern faces, that i was reminded, THIS IS NOT THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, KID. HERE YOU ARE JUST ONE PERSON WITHOUT VERY MUCH POWER TO CHANGE THINGS. remember the film, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, where the young american was caught with hashhish strapped to his body in turkey? i expect you felt the same sort of helplessness when you heard about the suicide bombing and the slaughtering of your friends in afghanastan.

    i am a journalist, sara, and, like you, i have loved to poke my nose into places to see what was going on. sometimes i go to places where i am neither wanted nor welcomed. you were not wanted in that dangerous territory in afghanastan, and your friends were not welcome. you escaped with your life because of time, circumstance and good fortune. the next time, my dear, you may not be so lucky. peace.

  3. injaynesworld

    Hearing about that bombing is heartbreaking. What a world. I'm glad you were there and got back home safety to write about it. Keep writing about it. I'm reading Greg Mortensen's new book now. What an amazing man. If only our government would listen to him. If only they'd listened to Charlie Wilson.

  4. Irma

    Thank you Sara. Love your writing and appreciate having the opportunity to respond. Pune, India lost it's local meeting spot for guests called the German Bakery. I spent many hours there watching the days unfold. Last month it was attacked; a bomb reduced this once peaceful meeting place to dust. So sad to hear about your experience which is so important for this reader to feel — and that was supplied with your graceful writing — even though it was such a tragedy!

  5. Garage Sales For Gaza

    I had wondered what a safe place would be. I think your guide chose properly (at least like I have done in the past)…except that places like yours don't have the security the big places have.

    Back in the 70's, I camped at Onekahakaha Campground just outside Hilo. We got moved out in the middle of the night…but no sirens. They didn't work then.
    But, like you…no tsunami.

    Growing up a poor boy…with a deep fear of starving between breakfast and lunch…I even have survival food in my truck. My freezer is full and I buy caselots.

  6. Oliver

    Wow! What a day. About all you can do is Leap! and hope you land on the right square. At least here in Boulder we don't need to worry about Tsunami's (unless your house is under water).

  7. Clarence

    Hi Sara,

    So glad you and your group are safe. If you had died, have you repented of your sins and put your trust in Jesus Christ for your eternal salvation?

    You can have eternal life and have it abundantly if you trust in Jesus Christ and repent of your sins.

    May God bless you,

  8. Trisha

    I'm glad that you're safe.

    I'm also very sorry to hear that the guesthouse that you knew was bombed.

    I know that either of the two events would shake anyone up!

    Thanks for writing.

  9. NEM

    It was a surreal day in Kona as we watched TV for signs of the tsunami all morning yesterday. I was struck by the perversity of the whole non-event: people wanting to witness an historic occurrence and then being disappointed that the islands got off unscathed. I’m not sure that this is considered human advancement that we can watch disaster-in-the-making as entertainment. Not sure how much we can do to stop or even alter Mother Nature’s plans, though…

  10. Mary Kate

    Thanks again for a “lesson in not being able to control life”-
    I always forward your writings onward.
    I have certainly found through my experience that we have no control. When you think you can avoid, for ex- a hereditary illness and instead you find out that there is one you didn't know about… then you realize that life certainly keeps presenting challenges. It's how you deal with it.

  11. Joey

    So many people live that way, in fear. The Invisible Children of Uganda, The Israeli people, the people of Darfur and Chad … I could go on. You are brave to have gone and generous to share your fascinating experiences with us. Educating people and raising awareness is key to making the shifts of change that will be necessary for our survival. I don't believe that all of us are evolving towards higher consciousness. I think that the people who are causing others to suffer are actually devolving. I believe that those suicide bombers and others who kill aremonsters on the planet. i don't buy the theory that we are all capable of that level of cruelty or that suffering exists to teach us compassion. I don't need to see a child's head lopped off in order to feel compassion. I believe that there are two separate species of humans; the humane, responsible, caring, spiritually oriented ones, and the monsters who torture and kill. There were Cro Magnons and Neanderthals coexisting among other species of humans, so why not have different human species now? i no longer believe that we are 'all one.” I am grateful that you share your adventures and experiences with us and so thankful that you are well and safe. With Respect and Blessings, Joey

  12. Anonymous

    Hi Sara, I wondered what happened to my favorite author. Thank you for telling us about the situation with your friends in Afghanistan. I'm truly sorry, I don't believe for minute that you weren't wanted. In fact as Americans I believe we need to help in whatever way we can and where ever one is lead and called. Nothing is more wonderful and fulfilling than service to mankind. So please keep traveling and reporting back, stay safe and grounded. You have a God given talent and you must use it for the good. ps:glad you and your family made it through the storm.

  13. Kim

    Death is on my mind having lost my husband 11 months ago. Death comes when it pleases. No reason needed. The attack in Afghanistan was like the car accident that took a fellow widow’s husband, sudden, unexplainable and devastating. You are left with a bunch of what ifs. The tsunami in Hawaii was like the cancer that doesn't kill, people gather around, support one another, grab pianos or whatever they can to ride it through. Grateful (?) to find a place to call home, happy to have gathered enough supplies. My cancer tsunami was like the one in Thailand. Should have seen it coming but there was not much we could do even when the water started to rise.

    Nothing is permanent but impermanence.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Gonna recheck our earthquake kit in the am. (live in LA) Even though I know being prepared won't stop the devastating emotions no matter how safe or not we are when it comes.

  14. Gail Storey

    Sara, glad you're safe and that the tsunami was a non-event. I share your compassion for the people of Afghanistan, as well as Chile and Haiti.

  15. rick the celestial cowboy

    to all on this site who sympathize over the loss of her friends in the bombing, i offer you my interpretion of events. life has no meaning except the beauty of its intricate design. we go on, into the unfathomable depths of human understanding. the spiritual sets in later when all human efforts fail…

  16. Ken

    The Afghan bombing should remind all of us how lucky we are to live in the USA.

    As far as the people in Hawaii complaining about the false alarm, I would remind them that 1,500 people died during Hurricane Katrina. I would guess that most of those 1,500 were under a mandatory hurricane evacuation and did not evacuate. I did evacuate and came back to find four trees had fallen through the roof of my house and three feet of water had pushed inside even though I was seven miles from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

    An occasional false alarm is worth the inconvenience.

  17. Candyland

    Thank you so much for sharing your journeys and observations to keep us all mindful of our many blessings and many realms of influence.

  18. Anonymous

    What if your group had handguns?

    Being armed offers you a chance against the Taliban.

    The goal is to drive out all foreigners, when a country is occupied, and the puppet government is corrupt. Same thing happened in Vietnam. Kids would run in with hand grenades and pull them.

    Key to stopping a suicide bomber is to have a guard search. And to have the ability to spot one. Israel has zero incidents at their airports due to racial profiling, combined with hidden agents looking for body language signs. They do not have all the technology the US has, which does not work as well.

    Solution: US get out. Give all the women handguns to carry under their burkas.

  19. C.A.

    There have been a lot of unusual natural disasters this year, and I fear more are to come. We Americans are spoiled indeed, and most of us can't even imagine how a lot of less fortunate people live. I think if a major natural disaster, say an earthquake of 10.1, or an underground volcano like the one under Yellowstone Park erupts, it's gonna get ugly real fast.

  20. BEVKAI

    Hi from Honolulu: Unlike Sara, I had TWO live views of the ocean during what one writer dubbed “the pseunami”. There was the weather guy Sara watched , on three channels, and the view from my lanai.

    I can't see Waikiki beach – -to many new condos built block the view, but I could see the water off Ala Moana Beach Park, Kewalo Basiin, and Kaka'ako Beach Park. Combined with the tv image, I had a view of the coastline from Diamond Head to Downtown.

    I could see the tidal surges in Hilo Bay on the TV, and see the local water change color from my 18th floor lanai.
    Yep, it was a tseunami all right; very much like the other two I have witnessed here. Even if it measures inches, it is a true surge cause by a quake. Later news showed damage on the Chilean shoreline. A thirty-foot wave had hit a village without warning.

    There was a like event in Hilo in 1960 – – -thus the intense local coverage. Something about the contour of the bottom of the bay affects the height of the wave. Sometimes. Fortunately, not this time.

    As I watched and waited, I recalled the video of the tseunami which hit the Thai coastline a few years back. I had spent two Christmasses on those very beaches and islands, and as Sara remembered the locals in the Afgani guesthouse who were attacked by insurgents, I recalled the Thais and European holidaymakers whom we all saw overcome by the sea… and I had known them and benefited from their warmth and holiday joy.

    The fact that this could happen right outside my window, in my neighborhood, where I live my ordinary daily life, was horrifying. I had plenty of supplies left over from hurricane season, so that was no problem if the power went out… and I even had water stashed in case the sea shorted out the main island pumps. But it was the waiting – – with the memories of Thailand and the heaps of the dead, that affected me.

    My Fibromyalgia acted up; it was the muscle tension which I simply can't control during unusually great stress. I am used to this.

    I filled the bathtub.

    It was the waiting

    And the waiting.

    I could see the water near-shore turn tan, then blue again, then tan as the sandy bottom showed through the shallows as the water receded. The blue water indicated the deeper surge. Maybe twelve or fifteen inches.

    That is all it was. Much the same as extra high tides, only five minutes apart. We had seen this before, years ago, on 'Tseunami Tuesday' which caused gridlock for nothing, and “Waveless Wednesday” a few years later. That time the response had been more rational. The local beat cops let me ride my bicycle into Waikiki to take photos of the completely empty streets and hotel lobbies. It looked like a scene from an old Apocalyptic movie.. but it was my home at the time.

    Having this tseunami alert on a Saturday made things much easier. Children and parents were not separated by work and school… the tourists had plenty of warning to get above their hotel's third floor…and the hours of warning gave families plenty of time to stock up and get together.

    A coming disaster is much like having your house on fire. You can't do a damn thing about it. So you grab your checkbook, and maybe a few financial files. Medication, purse, and get the hell safe. It really makes you set your priorities in a hurry.

    The lone idiot who waded out into the sea from Waikiki reminded me of the tv image of a lone Thai man who stood on his beach and watched the foaming wave approach. It over came him and he didn't even run. Perhaps some people WANT to be overcome. You are free from decisions and priorites.


    I am so happy that disaster didn't hit my home town, and am so proud of all the people who took care of themselves, and of one another, and calmly waited to see if their lives would be turned upside down. Everyone on the islands was safe; that was the comfort. That was the Aloha.
    Bev in Kaka'ako

  21. Tore

    My wife and me along with my two daughters and their husbands were staying in a vacation home in Hawaiian Paradise Park about 8 miles south of Hilo Bay.
    We had just travelled around the south of the island from Kona, where we had been staying the previous 6 days. All of us were enjoying a well deserved sleep when my son-in-law's mother called him at 1:00 AM to warn of the tsunami. We all got our things together and left the house like Lot left Sodom. Our house was about 100 feet from the rocky shore and I was imagining a 30 foot wall of water sweeping in on us. About 5 miles into our escape we didn't notice any increase in traffic and started to wonder, however my son-in-law's exotic cell phone was showing a RED warning screen so we continued into town to get gas and talk to the local police.
    The gas station attendants weren't too concerned about it. The police were keeping an eye on it. We decided to have an early breakfast at Ken's Restaurant and then go back to the house and pack up properly and head for Volcano Park…which we figured should be high enough.
    We arrived at the park before it was open but the sign told us to continue. We travelled about 20 miles on the Chain of Crators Road to a place on the south slope of Kileau about 2 miles from the coast.
    About 500 people gathered here by 11:00am to watch the destruction of the Big Island.
    11:19 am came and went and nothing noticeable occured. Around 11:35 am we caught sight of splashing at the coast but nothing like the waves that we experienced after returning to our beach house later that day.During the high wind warning event I felt very uneasy about the pounding waves and high spray. We all felt that the Hilo side of the island is for more seasoned travelers.

  22. Karen

    Did you in our book club (Eugene, Oregon) this past summer after reading your early book on women of the 60s-70s here in Mexcio. While thinking of natural disasters (we specialize in hurricanes in Baja) I am struck by the difference in impact between Haiti and Chile earthquakes and the fact that Chile can handle its problems on its own.

  23. Bruce

    You said “There but for the grace of fortune…..”. More appropriately you should have said “There, but for the grace of God….”. Time to get your ducks in a proper row —December 12, 2012!!!!!

  24. wordwarrior

    Two things which come to mind in your blog:
    1. Why should America poke its nose into every other country which happens not to have the same political ideas or system as herself? As soon as a country refuse to comply with America's wishes, she has to be invaded or threatened to be invaded. All other excuses put forward do not justified interference in other countries' internal businesses. 9/11; time will reveal is not the work of the Taliban nor al-Qaeda but the work of the previous Administration in conspiring to make its “martial law” policies acceptable to the public.
    2. Instead of concentrating its financial resources into making more efficient and deadly machnes and means of killing people and fuelling worldwide arms race, America can better help her own citizens weather natural disasters like hurricanes, floods,earthquakes and tsunamis as well as encouraging the rest of the world to avert human disasters and surmount many man made and natural disasters like Climate Change confronting our planet.

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